It's almost like Greek tragedy," Michael Cerveris says. "The themes, the scale of the emotions, the sweep of the story tie into classic drama in a way that allows the audience to experience catharsis through blood-letting and revenge — and then the hero is finally struck down by the gods. It taps into those fundamental aspects of drama that have been important to audiences since its beginnings."
Cerveris is talking about Sweeney Todd. And he's doing so because it's time again to attend the tale of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. But the new Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's masterpiece of a musical is a Sweeney with a difference. The vengeance-obsessed Todd cuts throats — and plays the guitar. Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime, bakes the best pies in London — and plays the tuba. And both chime in on orchestra bells and percussion.
In fact, all ten cast members at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre — including Cerveris as Sweeney and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett — act, sing and play musical instruments. That's the crux of the production that was a major success in London and has come to Broadway with an all-American cast. The other instrumental stars include cello, accordion, flute, trumpet, double bass and clarinet.
British director and designer John Doyle says the concept of actor-musicians actually came to him a decade ago. "I was working in regional, not-for-profit theatre in the United Kingdom and I wanted to do Leonard Bernstein's Candide, but we couldn't afford an orchestra. I realized it was an interesting way to explore how you could retell a musical-theatre story and perhaps break, or challenge, or explore some of the clichés that are musical theatre, and reinvent them. Because in this show you have ten people who do everything — there is no conductor — so you have to find a new way of telling the story."
Because of the innovation, he says, there's a challenge for everyone involved. "It's an archetype of a musical done in a different way, so it does take a big plunge, a big leap, for the audience, the performers and myself to think, 'Okay, it doesn't have a barber chair, it doesn't have an upstairs and downstairs, and it doesn't have a crowd of people, but it's the same music, the same wonderful lyrics, the same story.' I would never rewrite it. You want to be as honest and loyal to this great material as possible." Doyle has directed several musicals this way at regional theatres in Britain, especially at the small Watermill Theatre in Newbury, where he's an associate director, and where this Sweeney began. He chose Sweeney Todd, he says, "because it has humor, tragedy, anger, love — everything. I love that balance of humor and darkness, that Grand Guignol, that's at the heart of the piece."
For Michael Cerveris, who won a Tony as John Wilkes Booth in the 2004 revival of Sondheim's Assassins, part of the challenge is making sure the audience relates to Sweeney. "Sweeney," he says, "is in some ways a man like all of us, who has been dealt with unfairly by life and takes matters into his own hands to get revenge. I think one of the attributes of this production is making Sweeney not seem like an unknowable monster. He really comes from a place that all of us could come from. He takes it to extremes, but all of us certainly have had those fantasies of revenge and those feelings that we've been wronged and treated unfairly."
The guitar is less of a challenge. "I've played it for years," says Cerveris. And surprisingly, for Patti LuPone the tuba is also less of a challenge. "I played it in the band at Northport High School on Long Island," says the renowned diva, a Tony winner for Evita in 1980 and a nominee for Anything Goes in 1988, her last Broadway musical starring role. "So the tuba is not new. But I'm not great at it. It's not easy to pick up again. It's all about the mouth. It's a big instrument, and I originally played it for the effect. It was the silliest instrument I could think of. I also did it because our high school band used to go on these summer camping trips where we would learn marching routines for the football season. We had an all-girl sousaphone line. And the camping experience was sexy."
Cerveris says that audiences need not wonder about the contemporary relevance of this grisly tale. "We don't have to look far these days," he says, "to find examples of going to insane extremes to get revenge and to wreak havoc for personal reasons, whatever our justifications. So I think it has a lot of resonance."